The Best of Mike Leigh
As one of the pioneers of social realism, writer-director Mike Leigh is rightly viewed as one of the most important cinematic figures of his generation.
Leigh has created masterpieces in each of the last five decades - his longevity inextricably linked to the quality of his work. As Leigh begins filming his latest film Peterloo, we look at some of his finest work - showcasing his extraordinary talent for filmography and his ability to portray complex and enthralling characters.
Rather different from the films that Leigh had made in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Naked follows a violent and charasmatic man as he moves across the country chasing an ex-girlfriend. The main character Johnny prophecies the end of world at the turn of the millennium and this “Millennium fever” was the inspiration behind the film for Leigh. Although this was his third film, Naked really announced that a new auteur had arrived, one whose ability to imbue films with elegant character-building and a huge amount of emotion still remains unparalleled.
Secrets and Lies (1996)
Garnering Leigh his first Academy Award nominations for directing and writing as well as the Palme D’Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Secrets and Lies arguably represents a critical highpoint for the filmmaker. In the film, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) attempts to find her birth family after being adopted and causes tension between Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), Maurice (Timothy Spall) and their loved ones. The most interesting aspect of the film’s production is that Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste’s first scene together (an early scene in which Hortense reveals that Cynthia is her mother) was filmed in one take to create authentic reactions. This is indicative of Leigh’s style in general and his successful attempts to create realistic films.
It is fair to say that for most people, a biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan sounds like nightmare fuel but with Topsy-Turvy, Leigh has produced a memorable and affecting portrait. Starring Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville as well as Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner as the iconic musical pair, the script finds a singularly entertaining vein of comedy-drama that helps the film sustain it’s close-to-three-hour runtime. The music set-pieces are interesting as Leigh rejects the urge to have the singing dubbed or lip-synced by having the actors perform their own singing routines.
Vera Drake (2004)
Vera Drake is a deeply emotional film following the titular character - played by Imelda Staunton - as she offers illegal abortions in 1950s London. One of Mike Leigh’s most notable production techniques and according to famed film critic Roger Ebert:
“His method is to gather a cast for weeks or months of improvisation in which they create and explore their characters. I don’t think the technique has ever worked better than here.”
Similar to Secrets and Lies, several of the scenes were rehearsed with the actors unaware of the plot developments within them so that their genuine reactions could be added to the script. The result of this technique is an incredibly raw film deserving of the immerse critical acclaim it received.
Mr Turner (2014)
Mike Leigh’s most recent film is a biopic of 18th century artist JMW Turner featuring beautiful cinematography and a Cannes Best Actor award-winning performance by Timothy Spall as the painter. Focussing on the complex personal life behind the artwork, Leigh uses his usual flair for unspoken complexity to portray the contradictions inherent in the emotionally repressed, introverted Turner who nevertheless created beautiful works such as The Battle of Trafalgar and Sunrise with Sea Monsters.
Peterloo is expected to premiere in 2018.